How to Almost Run into Massive Hippos (Hint: Be Drunk)

Also: pay no attention to where you are going

Photo by Lady Bugz on Unsplash

Three of us lurched down the narrow path carved into the dense forest. 

Weaving our way from one side of the path to the other, we paid no attention to the various squawks and rustlings produced by the creatures surrounding us.

Having consumed an intemperate number of Bell Lagers with our dinner, we were only minimally aware of the humid night air that coated our skins with moisture. 

In fact, we weren’t paying attention to much at all, other than finding our way back to our hotel room. 

We certainly weren’t looking where we were going.

Photo by sutirta budiman on Unsplash

Chasing chimps, playing tourist

Sharing the path with me that night were Jonathan, a Brit who was building a small eco-tourist lodge in the same wildlife reserve as the chimp project I was working on, and his brother-in-law, Jack. The three of us had enjoyed a day playing tourist in Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth National Park.

My work with the chimps wasn’t going well. They were skittish after years of being hunted illegally, and drought was preventing the large trees from producing the abundant concentrations of fruit that drew the chimps into bigger groups, making them noisier and more confident — and easier to find and observe. 

I’d welcomed the chance to take a breather.

Jonathan, Jack, and I had spent the day viewing wildlife from the Land Rover: zebras and their black stripes shimmering in the sunshine, eland bulls with Angus-like shoulders and unicorn-esque horns, and a herd of Thomson’s gazelles with their constantly swishing tails.

Toward the end of the afternoon, when the light was perfect for a picture, something spooked the Tommies. The herd launched into flight, bounding pell-mell toward a teardrop-shaped lake reflecting jagged volcanic mountains under cotton-white clouds.

It was getting close to dark, so after watching them disappear we headed back to the main lodge, where we ate a large and delicious meal of the Ugandan staple matoke — mashed plantains — served with beans and boiled greens. 

We also drank quite a few Bell Lagers.

Photo by Stefan Steinbauer on Unsplash

Championship-level drunken obliviousness

Feeling no pain and with nary a care in the world, we three charted an unsteady course along the path from the restaurant to the hotel, regaling ourselves with stories from that day and others — and quite possibly embellishing them a bit.

“I don’t know about that,” Jonathan interrupted, “but that is a massive great hippo right there!”

We froze.

We’d nearly blundered into the hippopotamus grazing on the path ahead of us. How close were we?

WAY too close: I saw individual eyelashes flutter when he blinked.

This was championship-level drunken obliviousness. After elephants and rhinos, hippos are the third largest land animal. Males grow up to 4,000 pounds. Two tons.

Put another way, they’re 15 feet long and 5 feet at the shoulder. I’m here to tell you that this guy looked every bit of 4,000 pounds and 15 feet long. 

His skin gleamed in the moonlight. My addled brain noted it was the exact color of the hematite jewelry sold at the souvenir stands.

Hippos, the three of us knew, killed more people each year than any other land animal on the African continent*. Quite often, tourists wander too close, incorrectly assuming bulk implies docility. We’d made the same mistake, but for a different reason.

Here’s another way I knew we were too close: I could hear his grazing.

Each bite elicited a soft squeak of protest from the low, thick grass. The sound seemed much too small to be caused by such a large animal. 

Our only hope of escaping unscathed was that the hippo would rather continue to eat than trample us.

We started tiptoeing away as silently — and as quickly — as possible. 

I don’t know about Jack and Jonathan, but I was praying that this was, in fact, a hungry, hungry hippo and he didn’t decide to munch on me.

He must have been loving his grass because he never looked up from his meal.

After a very wide detour, we arrived at our rooms. Well, at Jonathan’s room. Jack and I were saving our shillings by bunking in the Land Rover — another bad decision. 

Tormented by humidity and mosquitoes that we couldn’t find and squash, I slept horribly. Eventually, I pulled a spare t-shirt over my head to keep the little bastards out of my ears and went to sleep.

Strange noises woke me the next morning.

With some difficulty, I freed my aching head from my t-shirt and looked around. Jack was snoring softly in the back seat. Just outside the Land Rover, a family of warthogs foraged enthusiastically for their breakfast on the hotel’s front lawn. 

Glad to have an explanation for the odd sounds, I watched the comically ugly warthogs for a few minutes, scratching my mosquito bites and stretching my sore neck. 

Moving slowly, I exited the Land Rover in search of caffeine. I made my way down the path leading to the restaurant, scanning the woods on either side as I went.

I found coffee and avoided being trampled to death, so I counted the morning in the win column. 

*Unless you include mosquitos as land animals. I don’t.

Sean Kernan’s recent article about Pablo Escobar’s escaped hippos living the free-range lifestyle in Colombia’s largest river reminded me of this incident. 

© Copyright 2021 by Jim Latham
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